Reflections on the Tree of Life, Part 3: Christ and the Tree

The tree of life and its fruit mean many things to many different people.  Immortality, eternal life, the presence of God, and Jesus the Christ are all important meanings of the tree in our tradition, but many more could be stated.  Among Christians, one prominent meaning of the tree of life is as a symbol of the Christ.  One way in which this is the case was hinted at when the apostle Peter spoke of Jesus’s death and crucifixion as being “killed by hanging him on a tree.”[1]  The cross is referred to as a tree elsewhere in the New Testament as well, and, as C. Wilfred Griggs wrote, “Some have noticed that the Greek word used in these passages is the same as that used for the tree of life in the Septuagint, different from the usual New Testament word for tree. According to a number of sources, some early Christians thought of the cross as a tree of life.”[2]  The tree and its fruit can be seen as a symbol of Jesus the Christ.

The New Testament references to the cross as a tree took root and caused some commentary among Christians about the cross being the tree of life.  For example, St. John of Damascus wrote that: “The tree of life which was planted by God in Paradise pre-figured this precious Cross.  For since death was by a tree, it was fitting that life and resurrection should be bestowed by a tree.”[3]  More recently, Roman Catholic Pope Benedict XVI stated that “the Cross is the true tree of life.”[4]  St. Albert the Great developed the idea further, speaking of the cross as the tree and the flesh and blood of Christ (offered in the Eucharist as bread and wine) as the fruit.  He wrote: “This sacrament is the fruit of the tree of life.  Anyone who receives this sacrament with devotion of sincere faith will never taste death.  It is a tree of life for those who grasp it, and blessed is he who holds it fast.”[5]  Among Christians, the tree of life has been used as a symbol of the cross.

For other people, the tree of life was the Christ himself.  For example, the 18th century Christian poem “Jesus Christ the Apple Tree” spoke of Jesus as the tree of life: “The tree of life my soul hath seen / Laden with fruit and always green / The trees of nature fruitless be / Compared with Christ the Apple Tree.”  We seem to see this as well in the Book of Mormon.  After Nephi’s request to see the tree of life was granted, he told the Spirit of the Lord that he wanted “to know the interpretation thereof” (1 Nephi 11:11).  In response, he was shown “the mother of the Son of God” and “a child in her arms” that was proclaimed to be “the Lamb of God, yea, even the Son of the Eternal Father” (1 Nephi 11:18-21).  Throughout the vision, Nephi used terms to describe the tree that can be connected to the Christ.  After seeing the Lamb of God, Nephi stated that the tree was “the love of God, which sheddeth itself abroad in the hearts of the children of men” (1 Nephi 11:22) and that it was “the fountain of living waters … which waters are a representation of the love of God” (1 Nephi 11:25).  These images seem to have echoes in statements in the gospel of John, where Jesus proclaims that “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16).  The Christ is also described as the fountain of living waters, such as when Jesus told the Samaritan woman that “the water I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”[6]  As if to confirm the connection to Christ in Nephi’s vision, the angel next showed Nephi the Christ being baptized, ministering to the people, calling twelve apostles, healing all manner of infirmities, and ultimately, his trial and crucifixion (see 1 Nephi 11:26-33).   Thus, as Elder Jeffrey R. Holland stated: “The Spirit made explicit that the Tree of Life and its precious fruit are symbols of Christ’s redemption.”[7]

An alternative understanding of the tree’s relationship to the Christ comes to mind from Nephi’s vision.  When shown the tree and the interpretation thereof, he is shown the mother of the Son of God with a newborn Jesus.  In some Christian artwork and writings, there have been depictions of the tree of life associated with Mary, occasionally in contrasting imagery with Eve and the tree of knowledge of good and evil.  For example, in the apocryphal Apocalypse of Paul, we find the following passage:

[The angel] having again taken hold of me by the hand, he led me near the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  And he says to me:  This is the tree by means of which death came into the world, and Adam took of the fruit of it from his wife, and ate; and thereafter they were cast out hence.  And he showed me another, the tree of life, and said to me:  This the cherubim and the flaming sword guard.  And when I was closely observing the tree, and wondering, I saw a woman coming from afar off, and a multitude of angels singing praises to her.  And I asked the angel:  Who is this, my lord, who is in so great honour and beauty?  And the angel says to me:  This is the holy Mary, the mother of the Lord.[8]

Gregory of Narek likewise wrote that Mary was “the living Eden” and the “healer of the pangs of Eve.”[9]  Medieval artwork occasionally depicted Mary associated with the tree of life, with Jesus as the fruit.  In at least on one depiction, Eve was shown in the same image as Mary, with each woman distributing fruit from their respective trees.  Tying this back to Nephi’s vision, the imagery of Mary as the tree also helps make sense of Nephi’s emphasis on Mary being “exceedingly fair and white” (1 Nephi 11:13), given that he also notes that the “the whiteness” of the tree “did exceed the whiteness of the driven snow” (1 Nephi 11:8).[10]

Whether as the fruit of Mary, a direct symbol of Jesus or of his bearing “our sins in his own body on the tree” (1 Peter 2:24, KJV), Jesus the Christ can be tied to tree of life symbolism.  In a way, the tree of life in Nephi’s vision can be seen as a reversal of the Garden of Eden—by partaking of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, Eve and Adam brought death and separation from God into the world.  Jesus (the son of Mary) overcame those effects, offering eternal life and re-union with God.  Thus, by partaking of the fruit of the tree of life, humankind is redeemed and atonement is made with God, reversing the effects of the Fall.

 

Footnotes:

[1] Acts 5:30.  See also 1 Peter 2:24 and Galatians 3:13. Bible verses are cited using the NRSV unless otherwise noted.

[2] C. Wilfred Griggs, “The Tree of Life in Ancient Cultures,” Ensign, June 1988, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/ensign/1988/06/the-tree-of-life-in-ancient-cultures?lang=eng.

[3] St. John of Damascus “Exposition of the Faith”, 6 Book IV, Chapter 11 (6th paragraph).

[4] Gheddo, Piero (March 20, 2005). “Pope tells WYD youth: the Cross of Jesus is the real tree of life” AsiaNews.it.  Retrieved 2020-02-09.

[5] https://www.crossroadsinitiative.com/media/articles/fruit-of-the-tree-of-life-albert-the-great/.

[6] John 4:14.  See also John 7:37-39.

[7] Jeffrey R. Holland, Christ and the New Covenant: The Messianic Message of the Book of Mormon (SLC: Deseret Book Company, 1997), 160.

[8] https://ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf08.vii.xl.html.

[9] See https://bookofmormonresearch.org/mary-and-the-tree-of-life.

[10] This was pointed out in Daniel C. Peterson’s article Nephi and His Asherah: A Note on 1 Nephi 11:8-23,” in Davis Bitton, ed., Mormons, Scriptures, and the Ancient World: Studies in Honor of John L. Sorenson (Provo: FARMS, 1998), 191-243.

2 comments for “Reflections on the Tree of Life, Part 3: Christ and the Tree

  1. SDS
    February 12, 2020 at 9:54 am

    Thanks, Chad, for this rich and wide-ranging presentation. Nephi 11 is one of my favorite chapters in the Book of Mormon, and I think it is worth reflecting on the transition from Nephi being shown “the tree which is precious above all” (v. 9) to his somewhat rote and uncomprehending answer to the question about “the condescension of God” (vs. 16-17) to his being shown the virgin bearing the Son of God (vs. 19-21) to his now effusive explanation of the tree in v. 22: “Yea, it is the love of God, which sheddeth itself abroad in the hearts of the children of men; wherefore it is the most desirable above all things.”

  2. Wondering
    February 12, 2020 at 4:47 pm

    Chad, Thanks for these reflections.

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